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Man-Boy Love Then and Now: A Personal-Political Appraisal
by David Thorstad
SIX YEARS AFTER THE FORMATION OF NAMBLA, many in the media—and even in the gay and lesbian movement—still express surprise that man-boy lovers have organized to raise public consciousness about their relationships. To some, this proves the inherently degenerate nature of gay liberation. To others—to many women’s and gay rights activists, for the most part—the existence of the man-boy love movement threatens their desired image of respectability. They wish it would go away. Both groups seem unaware of the fact that the boy-love movement is not new; it played an important role in the early gay movement in Germany from the late nineteenth century until the extermination of the movement with the triumph of Nazism.
Not only was boy-love an organized element of the early gay movement, it also addressed many of the same issues that sexual liberationists now confront. Many today are not familiar with these similarities partly because German is inaccessible to many Americans, including those who are writing about gay liberation.
Moreover, much of the literature on man-boy love in the early part of this century is only now slowly becoming available, even in German, and very little of it has been translated into English. When John Lauritsen and I wrote The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1864–1935) ten years ago, for example, we were unable to discuss the boy-love movement in Germany in greater detail because none of the libraries we had access to had much of this literature in their stacks.
Only in 1981 was a selection of Der Eigene, the most important boy-love publication, which appeared from 1896 to 1931, made available in German, and even that omits excerpts from several years for which copies had not been found. [*1] The Nazi extermination policies were quite effective, it seems, in obliterating traces of the pederast contribution to the first gay liberation struggle.
Ignorance of the past is no basis on which to draw conclusions for present-day struggle. Equally dangerous is any effort to tailor the past to fit current fashions. A few years ago, I attended a public forum of the New York Committee of Lesbian and Gay Male Socialists (a key group in the now moribund American “lavender left”) during which a speaker warned against supporting man/boy love because of his belief that the German boy-love movement had paved the way for the Nazi takeover.
What an absurd distortion! What an injustice to those pioneers of sexual freedom who sought to shed light on gay sexuality and to undermine the taboo on homosexuality, only to see their efforts wiped out by the antisexual policies of the Nazis on the one hand, and the Stalinized Communist International on the other!
This is the historical context out of which NAMBLA emerged. Unfortunately, after only fifteen years, the American lesbian and gay movement has already largely lost its spirit of rebellion and liberation, and is caught up more than ever in a tendency to sanitize its struggle, to limit its demands to the concerns of upwardly mobile adult homosexuals, to portray its goals as having nothing to do with sexual liberation (especially of youth), and everything to do with achieving “respectability” in the eyes of heterosexual politicians, whether Democrat, Republican, leftist, or feminist.
My aim here is modest. I do not claim to present a comprehensive analysis of the boy-love movement in Germany in the early twentieth century, or of the issues it raised. Nor do I seek to summarize all the contributions of the various thinkers who participated in it, often with conflicting ideas. My aim is to consider a few salient contrasts and similarities between the movement then and the movement today.
NAMBLA chose the term “man/boy love” to describe our issue, in the belief that the oppressed themselves have the right to name the phenomenon about which they are trying to enlighten the public. It is no minor matter that when even our most virulent opponents wish to denounce us they find it necessary to repeat the phrase “man/boy love”—an annoyance to them, no doubt, but a delicious amusement to me. The phrase also describes our lives more accurately than those terms of which psychiatrists and the police are so fond.
The early boy-love movement, however, used other words, which cannot always be rendered easily into English. They include:
These three terms occur frequently in the writings which appeared in Der Eigene. The writer/artist Elisar von Kupffer credits himself in 1900 with creating the neologism Lieblingminne: “I had to find a word that—till now—had not been befouled by people’s mouth.” He also included Freundesliebe in the title of his 1900 work on man/boy love to convey the idea that the man/boy relationship may not always be sexual,
All three were used by another contributor to Der Eigene, Edwin Bab, in two of the best boy-love booklets to emerge from the first decade of this
century. [* 3] One of the goals of Der Eigene was to struggle for “a rebirth of the love of friends.”
Although many German boy-lovers found inspiration in the ideals of ancient Greece, the term “Greek love” apparently was not their term of choice. They were, for the most part, pederasts, and so occasionally used the term “pederasty” to refer to the relationship between an adult man and a teenage youth. The term “pedophilia,” so common today among European boy-lovers, does not occur. Usually, the younger partner in man/boy relationships was thought of as being a “mature youth,” not a prepubescent child.
The first gay liberation publication in the world was inspired by man/boy love. Der Eigene, a periodical “for male culture,” first appeared in 1896—a year before the formation of the first homosexual rights group, the Scientific Humanitarian Committee (Wissenschafltlich-humanitäre Komitee), which was headed by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld until its demise in 1933.
How many lesbian and gay activists are aware that their public roots go back to a publication of pederasts? Those who identify with fellow pariahs in a heterosexual dictatorship, and who appreciate the courage it took to fight the antihomosexual taboo back then—not to mention today!—can take pride in the fact that the struggle for gay liberation did not begin or end with either “enlightened experts” or hat-in-hand gay and lesbian lovers of the establishment, willing to sacrifice the freedom of some of their brothers and sisters in exchange for a bit more freedom for themselves. Perverts and “child molesters” were at the heart of gay liberation from the beginning.
Der Eigene, roughly translated as “The Special,” suggesting a somewhat elitist mind-set, was joined by a boy-love group, the Gemeinschaft der Eigenen (Community of the Special) in 1903. [* 5] This group was founded by Adolf Brand, the anarchist publisher of Der Eigene, and by Benedict Friedlaender.
Der Eigene was inspired by aestheticism and the cult of youthful male beauty (you see mostly boyish or youthful male bodies in its illustrations), by a celebratory male outlook, and in some cases even by male supremacy. But its collaborators cannot be pigeonholed, except in their belief that the state had no right to persecute consensual love between a man and a male youth. Brand was an anarchist, and rejected any role for the state in enforcing religious morality. For him, the primary purpose of the legal ban on homosexuality was to help the state control the masses by inspiring awe in the powers that be. Some of Der Eigene’s collaborators were clearly “feminist,” while others were male chauvinist pigs, however intelligent some of their insights may have been.
Not a copy of the first issue of Der Eigene has been found, to my knowledge. [* 6] Only a few hundred copies were probably published. Perhaps one will still turn up somewhere.
The Community of the Special and Magnus Hirschfeld’s Scientific Humanitarian Committee represented two parallel, occasionally overlapping, and occasionally antagonistic, tendencies in the early gay movement. Of the two, the Community was much less influential. The two groups had quite different outlooks on several questions, particularly their appreciation of scientific views of homosexuality and their approach to the age of consent.
Third Sex versus Male Sexuality
With the spread of the medical model of homosexuality in the late nineteenth century went an increasing influence of doctors and psychiatrists in the gay movement. The doctors tended to view male homosexuality as representing a “third sex,” a “male soul trapped in a female body,” a view advanced by Hirschfeld (known as “Auntie Magnesia” in gay circles), probably because it coincided with his own androgynous self-image.
This trend was actively opposed by some. In their front ranks were boy-lovers. They felt that the prominence of the medical profession gave the gay movement the aura of a hospital. Elisar von Kupffer ridiculed the third-sex concept:
Edwin Bab and Benedict Friedlaender argued for an inherent bisexuality in humankind. In Bab’s view, it was not homosexuality that was inborn, but rather the inclination toward “specific types,” whether male or female.
In their critique of the third-sex concept, and their recognition of the ambiguities and potential bisexuality of the human animal, the boy-lovers certainly had their feet more securely on the ground than did the “mainstream,” “integrationist” gay movement of their day. Nobody buys the third-sex theory anymore.
The boy-love movement today has a more forthright appreciation for the variety and ambiguity of human sexual potential than does the pro-establishment lesbian and gay movement.
This shows that the pretensions of the movement’s “leaders” to scientific objectivity are little more than debating points; they prefer to reassure the straight authorities that homosexuals pose no threat to heterosexual supremacy, and promise never to help their sons discover the homosexual joys in which they themselves profess pride. Some gay pride!
Hirschfeld disapproved of the bisexuality theories of people like Friedlaender because he was afraid that the heterosexual powers would see in them confirmation of their fears that gay men might seduce boys into having gay sex. (Sound familiar?) He preferred to convey the idea that only a person born queer would ever engage in queer sex. But in the real world—then and now—things are more complicated.
In general, boy-lovers took a libertarian view of sex, which recognized that everyone was different, that the desire for sexual pleasure was natural, that younger and older males were inherently drawn toward each other, that man/boy friendships offered presumed benefits to society (such as reducing the need for prostitution and masturbation). They regarded the third-sex theory as unscientific, and absurd, a concept designed by freaks for freaks, half-males and half-females. For the most part, they embraced male ideals and the male physique, as well as an inherent bisexuality of the human species.
“In my opinion,” wrote Bab in a critique of the third-sex theory,
The approach of the boy-lovers was closer to what we today recognize as “gay pride.” Hirschfeld unquestionably made important contributions to gay liberation, but his theoretical underpinnings were haywire, overly influenced by the medical model. The impression he gave was that homosexuals can’t help who they are, so society should not discriminate against them. It is reassuring to know that some activists even then rejected such a limited view of sexual liberation.
Age of Consent
The German penal code set the age of consent at fourteen. In 1897, the Scientific Humanitarian Committee began circulating a petition calling for repeal of Paragraph 175, the sodomy statute. The Committee hoped to make its proposal more palatable by proposing that in exchange for repeal of the statute, the age of consent be raised to sixteen. It thereby began a trend, which has continued in the gay movement today, to shift the focus away from the consensual nature of sexual acts toward achieving more elbow room for sexual activity between adults at the direct expense of others—boy-lovers and young people—whose relationships were no less consensual.
Boy-lovers took different positions on this issue. None, it would appear, supported raising the age. On the other hand, I have seen no arguments in favor of lowering it either. Bab argued that any sexual activity between a man and a boy under the age of fourteen ought to be punished, on the grounds that the younger person was “a morally and perhaps also physically immature being” who could thereby be harmed. [* 9]
He noted in a footnote, however, that Adolf Brand demanded legal penalties only in cases “where a violation of personal freedom” was involved. Bab took this to apply to anyone under fourteen,
This was a debatable interpretation of Brand’s position. Brand consistently argued that the state had no business enforcing religious morality, and saw any attempt to impose such standards in law as a violation of the rights of the individual. Furthermore, his own photographic studies of nude young males were a frequent feature of Der Eigene, and some of these boys obviously were prepubescent.
Nevertheless, in general the boy-lovers in Germany were not pedophiles, but rather pederasts who simply took the position that sex between a man and a mature youth should not be penalized. This was the argument of an anonymous pederast in an article in the October 1911 issue of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee’s Yearbook, who signed his name only as Dr. ***.
He noted that efforts were under way to raise the age of consent to sixteen, eighteen, and even twenty-one, and pleaded for keeping the age at fourteen. It would be a terrible injustice to raise the age, he said, because the “mature boy” is a natural sex object for the man, and has been in most cultures. He also urged, somewhat incongruously, that if a fourteen-year-old boy had not yet masturbated, or enjoyed mutual masturbation, a man should refrain from introducing him to it, even when the boy wants it! [* 10]
Mackay expressed indignation at the efforts of Hirschfeld’s Committee to trade off an increase in the age of consent for repeal of Paragraph 175. In his 1907 pamphlet Gehoer! Nur einen Augenblick! (Listen! Only a Moment!), he noted that “No law can protect a youth from seduction. Only enlightenment can do that.” Instead of the law, we should trust the unwritten “law of love.” He denounced “professional seducers of youth” who would seduce a boy “before he has reached the time of maturity,” but noted that everyone is different and therefore age cannot be the criterion:
Summarizing his struggle in 1912, he concluded:
In 1924, Mackay voiced bitterness at the efforts of Hirschfeld and others to accommodate themselves to prejudices against man/boy love:
Glorification of the Male
It has always bothered me that so much boy-love erotica seems to suffer from idealism, even a kind of subtle racism. Too often we see drawings and photos that portray youth as pure, godlike, ethereal creatures, not as the multifaceted, multiracial beings that they are. Sometimes I feel that if I see another Zeus and Ganymede drawing I am going to throw up.
This idealist image of boy bodies was common in Der Eigene. It reflected the group’s tendency to exalt man/boy love above other forms of love, as though they were somehow inferior. It was also present in the youth cult inspired by the poet Stefan George’s love for his friend Maximin.
Some of the photographs published by Der Eigene in the late 1920s, despite their undeniable artistic beauty, appear troubling today for their hint of German nationalism and racial superiority, though I am not saying that this was their intended message. Yet it is difficult to view them without a sense of irony, in light of the Nazi ideology of racial purity and heterosexual supremacy that was shortly to make publication of such erotica impossible.
To be sure, initially at least, this idealist portrayal of the male body was part of a reaction to the stifling and sex-repressive atmosphere of Wilhelmine Germany—it celebrated nudity and the beauty of the body in the midst of a prudish society. Glorification of the male body à la ancient Greece made it possible to depict and discuss a universal aspect of human sexuality in the face of widespread ignorance, the increasing medicalization of homosexuality, and repressive legislation.
But boy gods we don’t need. Boys should be loved as boys, in all their variety and contradiction. By helping them to be free, we are helping to free ourselves. We can do without boy-love versions of the hypocritical heterosexual Mary cult, which puts females on pedestals—or in whorehouses. The exaltation of boy bodies in much of the boy-love erotica from the early twentieth century suggests the innocent and pristine to the point of unreality. The images that move us, and that we present to society, should be grounded in the real world, not in chaste and otherworldly fantasy.
Attitudes toward Women
Together with the glorification of the male went a tendency on the part of some boy-lovers toward denigration of other forms of sexual expression—particularly between two adult members of the “third sex”—and even misogyny. This outlook infected some—but not all—of the supporters of Der Eigene, especially Benedict Friedlaender. Friedlaender’s Die Renaissance der Eros Uranios (1904) and Männliche und weibliche Kultur (1906) (Male and Female Culture) reek with sexism and misogyny.
He went so far as to assert that
Apparently, he had not heard of the neolithic revolution in agriculture, one of women’s greatest contributions to the advancement of the human species. Surely his six-page
is one of the most preposterous and sexist attempts at cultural anthropology. He pitifully rejects Marxism and Social Democracy on the grounds that their support for the right of women to vote demonstrated that they had caved in to pressure from women! [* 15]
Such views were strongly criticized by other boy-lovers. For Edwin Bab, the goal of the boy-love movement was “a fundamental reform of our morals,” and this could not be accomplished in isolation from the women’s movement, let alone in opposition to it. He accused Friedlaender of having developed “the most reactionary viewpoints,” and warned boy-lovers against allowing their
Both the boy-love movement and the women’s movement, he argued, “unquestionably must work hand in hand.” If both movements could join forces, he hoped, “in the not too distant future, a truly human culture would bloom.” He noted that both Adolf Brand and Elisar von Kupffer opposed Friedlaender’s misogynist views. [* 16]
So did Mackay, who was a close friend of Friedlaender. It was with Friedlaender’s financial help that he distributed his pamphlet Gehoer! Nur einen Augenblick! He saw as the greatest mistakes of the German gay movement:
It is a measure of how little progress has been made that progressive views like those of Bab and Mackay were held sixty and eighty years ago. Boy-lovers should heed their warnings. But with so much hostility to man/boy love and sexual freedom emanating from pro-establishment elements of the gay/lesbian and women’s movements, the road ahead will not be smooth.
Lead and Be Led
Parallel to, and overlapping with, the early boy-love movement in Germany were the Wandervogel and youth movements. The first Wandervogel group was founded in Steglitz in 1896, the year the first issue of Der Eigene appeared. By 1913, there were approximately eight hundred different Wandervogel-related groups, with more than twenty-five thousand members. The Wandervogel (literally, “migratory bird”) was initially all-male, and organized youth into outdoor activities like hiking, camping, etc. It represented a reaction to the constraints of bourgeois society. The movement continued off and on until it was largely subsumed by the Hitler Youth.
It was not a gay movement. Those who fought to repeal Paragraph 175 were not in the Wandervogel, but in the Scientific Humanitarian Committee and the Community of the Special. The ideology of the movement, as Friedrich Kröhnke notes in his analysis of the Wandervogel and the gay movement, was “lead and be led.” [* 18]
This outlook contained an inherent ambiguity: it institutionalized something like the Greek mentor relationship, on the one hand, but, on the other, contained an implicit militaristic potential.
This militarist content was criticized by writers like Bruno Vogel and Klaus Mann.
Adults who sympathized with the Wandervogel spirit were allowed to participate in it as comrades. One such man was Wilhelm Jansen, a cofounder of the Community of the Special. Then in his forties, he was widely rumored to be having sex with Wandervogel boys.
In 1910, intense public attention focused on “pederast clubs,” resulting in a split in the movement by Jansen and his followers, who formed the Jungwandervogel, which numbered around 1,500. Another uproar occurred two years later with the publication of Hans Blüher’s book Die deutsche Wandervogelbewegung als erotisches Phänomen (The German Wandervogel Movement as an Erotic Phenomenon) in which he argued that homosexuality was the driving force behind the Wandervogel. [* 20]
The Jungwandervogel avoided the nationalism and the racist course of the youth movement, largely because of the influence of the socialist-pacifist educator Gustav Wyneken. But the movement never openly acknowledged its homosexual bent. Its statements, such as this one from the first issue of its journal, suggest the homoerotic without actually saying so:
Homosexual and bisexual men, in his view, make the best teachers of the young—a view strikingly expressed by Friedlaender too:
Kröhnke suggests that for some boy-lovers in the early twentieth century, it was possible to discuss the attraction of men for male youths only if it was presented in terms of this concept of “pedagogical leadership.”
Blüher professed disgust with Hirschfeld and his circle, and said that the campaign to repeal Paragraph 175 “was of no interest whatsoever to me.” Homosexuality, he said, should be accepted, not tolerated. Everyone has a gay component, so knowledge about homosexuality benefits everyone. Homosexuality is more social than heterosexuality, which leads to isolated coupling, whereas homoeroticism naturally gives rise to larger social units, such as nation-states.
Although this outlook contains some insights, it also has its problems, and is not of much relevance to the struggle for sexual freedom today. Where the Wandervogel movement looked to leadership and guidance of the young, today the boy-love movement stresses the liberation and empowerment of young people. Instead of pedagogy, democracy. Rather than a Greek love mentor-relationship, the companionship of independent and autonomous individuals. In place of male supremacy, a vision of sexual, economic, and political liberation for all. Freedom is indivisible, as Mackay said. The liberation of children, women, boy-lovers, and homosexuals in general, can occur only as complementary facets of the same dream.
The true roots of our struggle go back to people like John Henry Mackay and Edwin Bab, who developed a libertarian vision when so many of their contemporaries—like ours today—were trapped by the status quo even as they thought they were struggling against it.
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